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Anxiety, Working Memory, and Learning

We all have moments or phases of anxiety in our lives. We may feel anxious about a job interview, financial woes, or waiting for the results of a medical exam. When our nervous system is operating correctly, we should be able to move in and out of our anxious state quite easily; it is fleeting.

Sometimes, however, anxiety takes hold and becomes more of a permanent state. Some children even seem to be born with anxiety and remain in that state. When anxiety and/or a feeling of dread persists and impacts a person’s daily life, they may receive a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Why is it that some people seem to be able to deal with all of life’s challenges and it rolls off of them like water off a duck’s back, but for others, everything seems to cause worry and dread?

Let’s talk about stress states and the vagus nerve for a few minutes. The recent move to embrace mental health on a national level has really opened up the availability of information to people about stress, anxiety, and depression. Our autonomic nervous system has both a parasympathetic and a sympathetic state. When we are in a parasympathetic state, known as “rest and digest,” we are at ease in the world. We can engage with friends and family, we can sleep, digest our food, and enjoy our lives. However, when we enter a sympathetic state, our brains are worried about protection and survival. We may go into fight or flight mode to rally the troops and get through whatever immediate situation exists OR, if our system decides this situation threatens our existence and there isn’t a way out, we will go into pure protection mode, or Fear Paralysis. This is also known as the “Freeze” or “Deer in the Headlights” response.

In a sympathetic state, our cognitive resources are redirected. Since our brain is focused on protection and survival, processing cognitive information becomes irrelevant; memory is greatly impacted and our vision and auditory systems shift into protection. When anxiety is high, it hijacks our working memory to deal with anxious thoughts because those are about protection and survival. There is very little working memory left for learning and cognitive processing.

What does working memory do and how does it relate to learning?

Working memory is the ability to call up, temporarily store, and use information when needed. This of it as a bit of a “post-it” note of the brain. We have general, auditory, and visual working memory. There are many aspects to working memory that would be too much to cover in this article, but our phonological loop and visual-spatial sketchpad where we temporarily store visual information, is part of working memory. Those two functions are vital to learning to read efficiently and effectively. Visual and auditory processing disorders are the heart of dyslexia. But working memory is used all day every day, not just in reading. In math, I have to be able to ….remember the steps the teacher gave me to solve the problem (auditory and maybe visual); hold the problem in working memory while I solve it (visual-spatial sketchpad); remember the order of operations; etc all at the same time. If our working memory capacity is reduced, then something is going to get left out or we may go into a feeling of overwhelm and begin to shut down. Finally, in order for information to get into our long-term memory, we have to have strong working memory. Without the ability to store information short term, we cannot efficiently move it to long-term memory. I have worked with many children with high anxiety that do not seem to be able to hold on to concepts they have been taught repeatedly. In reality, this is not a long-term memory issue in most cases.

What can I do about it?

In order to address the working memory deficits, anxiety has to be addressed. There are many options for this. If anxiety exists, the brain is remaining in a stress state. This can be deactivated and allow a person to move back into a relaxed, parasympathetic “rest and digest” state. I work with folks using a combination of approaches and often refer out to my colleagues for additional support when needed. Some of the options to treat anxiety and thus learning-related challenges associated with that are:

  • Safe and Sound Protocol, a listening therapy

  • Measured breathing such as box breathing

  • Tapping

  • Proprioceptive work (promotes safety in the brain)

  • Supplementation with neurotransmitters such as GABA and Serotonin and vitamins such as Vitamin D (please work with a medical professional for this)

  • Exercise

  • Meditation and mindfulness

  • Socializing with people you care about

  • Pharmacological approaches

Please give me a call or email for more information or to set up a video call. I'm glad to help you and your family find solutions!

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